LanzaTech on turning pollution into fuels and productsWe Mean Business coalition
Founded in New Zealand and now headquartered in Chicago, LanzaTech has developed a biological process that makes ethanol (alcohol), fuel and chemicals using waste emissions – turning pollution into products. Unlike traditional fermentation, which uses sugar and yeast, LanzaTech uses gases and bacteria, to make alcohol.
LanzaTech has been operating demonstration facilities globally for the past 10 years, and has now established its first commercial facility at a steel plant in China. The company takes the raw emissions from the mill, which would otherwise be combusted and released into the atmosphere as CO2 and uses a fermentation process to feed it to bacteria to produce ethanol, which can go into fuels and products.
We spoke with Freya Burton, LanzaTech’s Chief Sustainability and People Officer to find out how the business is helping other organizations meet their climate change targets.
LanzaTech is a member of below50 and the Low Carbon Technology Partnerships initiative (LCPTi), led by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
below50 brings together companies and organizations who commit to growing the global market for the world’s most sustainable fuels – fuels producing at least 50% less CO² emissions than conventional fossil fuels. The LCTPi is a collaborative platform for businesses and policymakers to scale up deployment of business solutions to a level and speed consistent with limiting global warming to below 2°C.
HOW DO YOU HELP COMPANIES MEET THEIR CLIMATE GOALS?
As a company, we are at the forefront of enabling other organizations to meet their carbon commitments. This ranges from helping heavy industries reduce their carbon emissions, to helping transport companies switch to low-carbon sustainable fuels. In aviation, companies are increasingly looking to new types of fuels to help meet their emission reduction targets.
At demonstration facilities around the world, we’ve shown a wide range of feedstocks can be used in our gas fermentation process, such as gasified, unrecyclable landfill waste – waste that would otherwise have been incinerated or left in landfill. We can use gasified biomass – agricultural wastes and residues – that would otherwise be incinerated, or lie rotting on fields creating other GHGs.
Through partnerships, including with the US Department of Energy’s national laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, we have developed a process to convert ethanol to jet fuel. Since 2011, we have been working with Virgin Atlantic to produce the world’s first jet fuel derived from waste industrial gases from steel mills. Initial analyses suggest this fuel has the potential to save over 70% carbon emissions compared to conventional jet fuels.
WHAT ARE YOUR ACHIEVEMENTS SO FAR?
In China, we’re working with Shougang Group, one of the largest iron and steel producers in the country. We’re operating the world’s first commercial facility converting industrial emissions into ethanol. Our technology uses anaerobic bacteria to ferment the waste emissions from the plant and turns it into ethanol. This is blended with gasoline for use in automotive engines or processed downstream into products like ethylene, which is used in the chemicals industry, and polyethylene, a plastic used for packaging.
At this site, we will make 48,000 tons (16 million gallons) of ethanol a year, helping the company reduce its carbon footprint, particulate matter (PM) emissions and other pollutants in line with China’s climate and energy goals. The Shougang Group sees our technology as a key part of creating a sustainable and clean future for the steel sector.
Optimization of the technology will be implemented In Ghent, Belgium, where we’re working with ArcelorMittal at the first project globally, to convert the carbon monoxide from blast furnaces into bio-ethanol. All materials used or generated during steel production are recuperated, treated and reused in the production chain or become the raw materials for other industries. Our gas fermentation system will support the company’s long-term aspiration to become a zero-waste business at the heart of the circular economy.
In Europe it’s the first installation of its kind on an industrial scale. It will produce about 80 million liters of bioethanol which could fuel 100,000 cars per year and avert the emissions of 80,000 vehicles.
WHAT IS THE SCALE OF THE IMPACT YOU’RE ABLE TO HAVE?
If our technology was used to treat all available waste-streams – gas streams from refineries, steel mills, gasified biomass residues and gasified municipal solid waste – we could avoid emitting 7% of global CO2 each year.
We see these wastes as an opportunity, not a liability. They are literally going up into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. We can convert that into something that not only has economic value, but brings social and environmental benefits.
HOW CAN YOU PARTNER WITH THE INDUSTRIAL SECTOR?
We can integrate into existing sites. The footprint of our system is relatively small as it uses a lot of preexisting infrastructure and the gas needs minimal pre-treatment.
Industrial emissions are very dirty, so nobody imagined they could be transformed to an asset, especially using a biological catalyst. Traditional approaches require expensive gas conditioning methods. But our biological process is very robust. The bacteria we use as an industrial catalyst can tolerate these conditions and thrive.
Crucially, it’s about the product offering – which includes not only ethanol, but a range of other chemicals. By tailoring our microbe at the genetic level, we can make a variety of products at the same site.
Let’s say you’ve just invested a lot of money into building an ethanol production facility. The ethanol market is fluctuating and the price falls. As a customer you can swap out the ethanol producing microbe for another one and make a chemical that has a more favorable price in the open market. To take the analogy of a mobile phone – the facility is the hardware, and the bacteria are your apps that can be updated. We can help companies respond to the market quickly, making our product very attractive.
ARE THERE ANY BENEFITS TO THE LOCAL OR NATIONAL ECONOMY?
There’s a big local environmental health benefit. Carbon monoxide is a waste that results from the production processes at steel mills. A way to dispose off it is to burn it which emits CO2 and air pollutants like NOx and SOx, and particulate matter. If instead all these noxious gases are fed to bacteria emissions, they are completely mitigated.
WHAT POLICIES HELPED TO GROW YOUR BUSINESS?
What’s key is whether the fuel qualifies for local incentives or even has a share in the market. In Europe, for example, fuel needs to qualify under the European Renewable Energy Directive. This impacts the price of the fuel and the payback to those investing in a facility.
We are seeing a big change in the policy landscape today that has proved challenging for us in the past. Biofuels policies have traditionally focused on plant-based feedstocks – fuel that used a gaseous waste wouldn’t qualify as a biofuel and wouldn’t count towards mandates.
Today we’re seeing a step change globally, both in inclusion of fuels made from ‘recycled carbon’ and in tax credits that support carbon utilization technologies. These types of policy changes will significantly help the business and the sector as a whole.
WHAT POLICIES WOULD HELP YOUR BUSINESS IN THE FUTURE?
Fuel-based policies are critical. They must be technology-neutral and focus on greenhouse gas reductions rather than the feedstock used. Effective policy would also look holistically at the sustainability profile of the fuel or product and have a carbon price that incorporates the true cost of externalities. However, many companies are already factoring in an internal carbon price, which is why we see a lot of interest in what we do.
WHAT WIDER IMPACT ARE YOU HAVING ON THE ECONOMY?
We are creating industrial symbiosis and enabling the circular economy. As an example, one of the products we can make is a platform chemical that can be used to produce synthetic fibers. The steel industry can therefore chose to extend their business model to the apparel sector. This creates new business opportunities among sectors that traditionally don’t work together.
In aviation for example, a steel mill could make the wings of the plane, and the emissions from the production of that steel, could actually fuel the plane and make the fabric for the seats of the plane.
Seizing the opportunity to create new ways of collaboration among different industrial sectors will enable innovative approaches to tackling environmental challenges.